[Blog] Papers, Leaves, and Formulas of Buddha Nature: Kanō Kazuo at the University of Toronto and McMaster University

By Annie Heckman and Julian Butterfield

On March 2, 2017, Professor Kanō Kazuo, Koyasan University, visited the University of Toronto as part of the Numata Buddhist Studies Program lecture series. In Dr. Kanō’s presentation, entitled “Papers and Leaves—Legacy of Indian Buddhists in Tibet and Tibetan Translators in India,” he shared images of rare manuscripts from the 10th to 13th centuries that show evidence of exchange among Indian and Tibetan Buddhists. Dr. Kanō first sketched out a sense of the usage of manuscript materials in different climate zones, showing how various substrates (birch bark, palm leaves, and paper) offer clues for the scholar about the origins of a given manuscript. He then described irregularities that occur in relation to these usual guidelines—deviations from certain broad material norms—which offer evidence of cross-cultural exchange. With this background in place, he provided a brief historical analysis of select Sanskrit manuscripts transmitted to Tibet during the 10th to 13th centuries.  

During the medieval period, as Buddhist textual production moved across different climate zones, formats emerged that show integration of textual practices associated with one region into the material life of another: Tibetan texts on palm leaves, Sanskrit texts written on paper from the Tibetan production zone, and Tibetan memos incorporated into Sanskrit palm leaf manuscripts. Dr. Kanō suggested that we should analyze these manuscripts with two fields of study in mind: textual studies of the content in a given manuscript, targeting Indic Buddhism; and historical studies of the transmission of manuscripts, targeting Tibetan reception of Sanskrit texts. 

Dr. Kanō’s presentation sparked a lively question-and-answer session. Discussions centered on authorship, ownership, scribal culture, revision, preservation, the recycling and repurposing of manuscripts, and the status of a manuscript as an object in ritual contexts. Questions of scope—how many manuscripts, of which type, in which places—were important to the conversations. Participants likewise showed an interest in looking more closely at materials, for example, studying the chemical composition of inks to see what this data might indicate about scribal culture and the circulation of specific substances. Another interesting point that came up in Dr. Kanō’s responses was the idea that evidence about manuscripts appears in many places other than the manuscripts themselves, including life literature. This point led us to wonder what forms of collaboration and communication across different subfields in Buddhist studies might best bolster the sharing of such evidence.

Dr. Kanō continued his visit to Ontario with a reading group program at McMaster University on the following day. In this event, entitled “Two Sanskrit Formulas of Buddha Nature: Reconsidering the Background of the Term Tathāgatagarbha,” he facilitated discussion on another current research interest of his: namely, the early development of Tathāgatagarbha doctrine. With the shift in topic and textual scope, Dr. Kanō accordingly engaged the reading group participants in a somewhat different approach to textual analysis. As the reading group’s title suggests, Dr. Kanō introduced us to two central yet slightly divergent formulations of  Tathāgatagarbha theory, found in a very early textual strata of this discourse. In the Mahāparinirvāna-mahāsūtra, the phrasing tathāgatagarbhaḥ sarvasattvānāṃ reflects that text’s earlier equation of Buddha nature with stūpas—outside of all beings—while in the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, the shift to sarvasattvās tathāgatagarbhāḥ helps build that text’s notion of a universal Buddha nature. These slight grammatical differences nevertheless suggest significant negotiations within the Sangha regarding the ontological status of the Buddha following his parinirvāṇa, and its modes of internalization by the Sangha.

As such, our fruitful two-hour discussion focused on grammatical and semantic trajectories in the history of Tathāgatagarbha theory, from the period of these crucial Mahāyāna sūtras forward through the Ratnagotravibhāga and Śrīmālā, the Lotus and Diamond Sūtras, and even the much later transmissions of “original enlightenment” teachings into Japan by Kūkai, Saichō, and Dōgen. Following an extensive network of similar Sanskrit and Tibetan formulations of Buddha nature prepared for us by Dr. Kanō, and engaging with the recent scholarship of Michael Zimmerman and Michael Radich, the reading group’s participants particularly questioned the necessity of the Buddha’s presence in the triratna, the nuances and possible implications of the term garbha, the dynamics between stūpa and body, and the tenuous roles of practice in the development of Tathāgatagarbha theory. 

In addition to introducing and facilitating rich discussion on these critical issues in early Mahāyāna discourse, Dr. Kanō’s reading group session at McMaster was valuable for exemplifying an extensive, precise approach to Buddhist textual history which nonetheless remained exploratory and flexible in its perspective. Although Tathāgatagarbha theory has been a site of notable scholarly debate, Dr. Kanō’s presented findings here that productively accommodated—rather than arguing away—rich, sometimes diverging interpretations. Seen in relation to Dr. Kanō’s earlier presentation at the University of Toronto, this reading group also showcased the flexibility of his approaches to Buddhist literary history, and more broadly the necessity to respond to different textual issues with relatedly different techniques of reading. We excitedly look forward to engaging with more of Dr. Kanō’s work as he continues to explore not only the wide literary scope of Buddhism, but also the very methods of this exploration.

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